ELNs — Where are They Headed?
Some impressions and ideas from casual, on-line discussions

From conference to conference, industry experts express their various opinions on what direction the ELN market will take. When I asked this question of the laboratory informatics industry as a whole, I got a variety of answers, as well.1 This article presents some of the impressions and ideas that came out of those discussions. Before sharing some of these thoughts, I should mention that this was not a survey nor was this formal in any manner; it merely involved casual, on-line discussions with people in the laboratory informatics industry, including software vendors, consultants, customers and others from various sectors of our industry.

While available commercial ELN solutions continue to increase in number, there are also solutions delivered using Microsoft tools, such as SharePoint and OneNote. A Pfizer presentation given at conferences on their use of OneNote continues to provide food for thought.

ELNs continue to provide more and more features and abilities, enabling them to better match the laboratory workflow. There has long been a question as to where an ELN stops and a LIMS begins, and this question remains unanswered as the number of features offered by ELNs brings them more and more into LIMS territory and vice versa. The lines continue to blur by these product offerings.

In fact, it appears that we are still asking the question and will probably continue to ask it for the near term, if not longer — but the lines will continue to get muddied. Recently, there was news about an instrument that is an ELN, in its own way, as even the simplest instruments are now being introduced with more intelligence built-in to manage the workflow. In fact, the question is not clarified by the continually blurring line caused by the encroachment of the various products into what we’d think would be the other’s territories. Then again, some disagree that there is any change in the definitions of ELN and LIMS. There is the suggestion that more and better integration will be key to future projects instead.

Topics regarding data-sharing projects and collaboration will continue to be important for consideration. Sharing data has been a problem in laboratory informatics for many years and, ELN or otherwise, this issue continues to drive change, as systems continue to increase in complexity, and the data continues to grow in magnitude. ELNs contribute to the volume of data that laboratories desire to use and share, along with all the other systems that they use. Thus, while system flexibility is important relative to a laboratory implementing an ELN, the future will continue to require that companies find ways to incorporate data so it can be gathered and shared with other parts of the company. Thus, reporting and other data sharing, both structured and less structured, continues to be a concern just as it has been in past years.

Although we tend to focus on workflow-derived features, some of the changes we’ll see will come from changing technology. As new devices arrive, and as web applications mature, these would be just a couple of examples of non-worfklow items that will influence change in the products and market.

Yet, unlike the discussions of the past that stopped with the confusing question regarding the line separating ELN and LIMS, current discussions often move toward “newer” topics, such as allowing and managing electronic signatures that comply with associated regulations, as well as an increasing interest in legal topics, such as IP protection. The future of ELN could hold yet more of these types of issues.

Also increasing is the sophistication of the audience. These days, everyone is starting to realize there are a variety of definitions for an ELN, partly because of the industry, partly because of what kind of ELN it is. For example, the definition of an ELN for a chemistry lab is different than that for a biology lab, and an ELN for R&D is different from one meant for the quality control labs. The future of our thinking about ELN is being driven by this increasing level of understanding. The future of ELN depends on us eventually forgetting it was meant to replace paper systems and entirely embracing the electronic features it could offer.

More mergers and acquisitions are expected, with more product consolidation, and more changes as to who the major players are in the ELN space.

In the future, the industry will continue to be driven by improving workflows and overall lab efficiency, not just from an automation standpoint, but also to obtain the right information at the right time.


1. “ELNs – Where Are They Headed?” was initially posted in May of 2010 at: 

Gloria Metrick is the owner of GeoMetrick Enterprises and the author of “Out on a LIMS: The Newsletter for People Who Risk Life and LIMS on a Daily Basis.” Gloria is also the founder of the LinkedIn LIMS/Laboratory Informatics group.